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Animal wearables, robotic milking machines help farmers care for cows

Wearable technology might still be a tough sell for humans. But farmers are embracing wearable devices for animals that help monitor livestock and allow robots to help care for them.

E-tags and e-collars help robotic milking pen identify cows, provide personalized care

In this 2008 photo from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a cow wears a collar equipped with a GPS device. It's one of the technologies increasingly found on Canadian farms. (usda.gov)

Wearable technology, like the under-performing Google Glass, might still be a tough sell for humans. But it seems to be catching on with farm animals.

More accurately, farmers are embracing wearable devices that help them monitor their livestock, such as GPS collars that track animals out in the pasture or e-pills that sit in animals' stomachs to measure their digestion.

Other wearables allow farmers to take advantage of high-tech innovations like increased automation. 

For example, robotic milking pens that automatically milk cows that walk into them are quickly taking hold at family farms. Such robots operate with the help of an e-tag clipped to the animal's ear or an e-collar snapped around an animal's neck. The wearables help the robot identify the animals and give each one personalized care, without the help of humans.

The industry website Dairy Global estimates that within a decade, half of the farms in Western Europe, where the machines have been adopted more quickly than in Canada, will use such automated milking machines.

But there are signs they're catching on in Canada too, with farmers like Clark Gourlay.

A robot milks a cow at Pure Holstein Dairy in Little Rapids, N.L. Robot milking technology is increasingly being used on Canadian farms. (CBC)
He has 75 cows at Morningstar Farm on Vancouver Island. Until now, he's been the kind of farmer who is up at the crack of dawn to milk cows.

But the new robotic milking pen in his old barn has changed that.

Once the cow walks inside, a robotic arm does all the work. Lasers scan and map their underbellies, and a computer charts any physical changes.

"The robot identifies which cow they are," Gourlay said. "It knows a whole lot of detail about that cow — how much milk she should be producing, how much she's been fed, where exactly her teats are.

"It gets to work, it cleans the teats off, and then it milks each teat out individually, and then disinfects her when she's done. The whole thing takes between six and nine minutes per cow."

E-collars help track animals' vitals

In its e-collar or e-tag, each cow carries ever-changing data about its size, health, and information about its last milking, for example.

The devices can also track the amount and quality of milk produced, the frequency of visits to the milking machine, how much the animals eat, and even how active the animal has been. E-collars can even monitor vital signs, similar to the way a fitness tracker might for a human.

The technology also allows the cows to decide when it's time to be milked. That's allowed them a new sense of freedom, Gourlay said.

"Now they just make decisions as individuals.  When they want to go to the robot, they do. When they want to lie down, they do. When they want to go to the feed bunk, get water, they do."

Treating cows as individuals hasn't always been easy. Historically, automation in farming has been used in large agri-business — farms where hundreds or thousands of animals are housed indoors in highly controlled environments.

Traditional automation worked best in situations where all animals were raised in what amounts to a factory system, but couldn't make decisions based on individual animals.

At small farms like Morningstar, wearables and robots have been key in giving each cow a degree of autonomy, and allowing them to spend most of the day in a pasture eating grass.

Robot helps monitor milk quality

Gourlay said that's because new technology can make assessments and decisions that previously required humans.

"We spend a little more time on the computer, looking at the health of animals," he said.

"The robot checks every quart of milk — every time it milks that cow, that milk gets checked. If there is an issue, we see it right away on the computer. And if it's a significant issue, it doesn't even ask us, it just sends the milk down the drain."

Of course, that might be an issue if the robot makes the wrong call.

The cost of the milking machines, often around $200,000, can be another hurdle.

But Gourlay said the technology offers a lot of advantages, including cows that are calmer, because they no longer have to contend with being herded into a barn for milking multiple times a day.

And using the robotic milking machine means he gets other tasks done more efficiently — and gets to sleep in just a little bit longer.

About the Author

Khalil Akhtar

Food Columnist

Khalil Akhtar is a syndicated food columnist for CBC Radio. He takes a weekly look at some of the surprising aspects of your daily diet. Khalil is based in Victoria, B.C.

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